Sandra Wollner’s new film makes its Australian debut at an interesting time. The debate around any kind of depiction of the sexualisation of minors has been burning hot, with Netflix’s bungled launch of Cuties a notable example of the intensity inherent in the discourse. The Trouble With Being Born has itself not arrived unscathed. It was pulled from the Melbourne International Film Festival earlier this year off the back of some media reports that cited forensic psychologist concerns, and was only a late addition to Adelaide Film Festival’s line-up, with the introductory speaker mentioning ‘red-tape’ that needed to be navigated to see the film eventually programmed. The showing itself bore all the hallmarks of a ‘tricky’ film, replete with multiple pre-screening content warnings and thorough ID checks. Given all of this controversy, I was interested to find out exactly what all the fuss was about.
The film’s focus is the existence of an android that takes the form and memory of a young girl named Elli, living with an older man in a secluded house surrounded by woodland. It soon becomes apparent that the relationship between the two has sexual connotations, and it’s this aspect for which the movie has drawn fire. Although not explicit, the interactions between the two become extremely uncomfortable and disturbing, with Elli clearly being used as both a surrogate child and lover. What’s more is that Wollner initially denies us so much as a trace of a narrative to cling to, which makes the experience of observing this dynamic all the more disconcerting.
Eventually there comes a break to this far from idyllic perversion of domesticity, and The Trouble With Being Born is able to explore themes that are provocative in an entirely different way. Wollner has described her picture as ‘anti-Pinocchio’, and it certainly disposes of any notion that Elli might be searching for some humanity quite quickly. Instead, it gives us pause to reflect on our own human nature, and consider what purpose a humanoid artifice might serve us, and how it may be abused. It’s a science fiction concept that we’re drawing ever closer to experiencing in reality, and Wollner’s film hints at the moral and philosophical complexities that await with the opening of this particular Pandora’s Box.
It is somewhat ironic that the contentious material previously outlined actually undercuts the exploration of these themes instead of enhancing it. Personally, I am avidly anti-censorship and find myself frustrated at the bad faith exhibited in far too many discussions around depiction vs endorsement. In this sense, I would unequivocally state that The Trouble With Being Born does not strike me as a problematic film. The issue for me is that it’s not an entirely cohesive one, and the film finds itself in a state of imbalance, having created a rod for its own back early on. I can’t help but feel that its most incendiary element may also be its most unnecessary. Having said that, it’s still a film worth seeing, if only for the opportunity to make up your own mind.